How is oppression portrayed in "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

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The story explores a very real oppression of women concerning childbearing and what many doctors of the time misunderstood about pregnancy and postpartum depression. The "rest cure" was a treatment resulting from misunderstanding women, pregnancy, and how to best support new mothers. Often those with authority such as doctors and men forced these treatments on women despite what women thought of the situation themselves. For example, the protaganist wants to write. She knows that writing will make her feel better. But she is forbidden to do anything that might overtax her. You might also look at this as an opportunity to discuss the oppression of women writers at the time.

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" is based on the author's own experiences with a faulty system for people who suffer from psychological conditions; a system devoid of knowledge about the true needs of female mental health sufferers.

According to the article by Gilman titled "Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper," she once visited a physician who advised her, upon learning of her issues with depression, to abandon all intellectual activity 

[...] a noted specialist in nervous diseases[...] put me to bed and applied the rest cure, [...] and sent me home with solemn advice to "live as domestic a life as far as possible," to "have but two hours' intellectual life a day," and "never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again" as long as I lived....

The result of this treatment was that Gilman completely broke down, reverting to one of the worst depressive episodes of her life. Hence, she wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper," in her own words, 

to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked

This being said, let's explore how many different examples of oppression, all of which Gilman experienced in her own skin, we can find in the story:

1.  "He does not believe that I am sick" 

Jane, the narrator, explains that her husband is a physician but that he does not believe in the reality of her feelings. 

If [...] one's own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?

The oppression here is caused by the utter disregard to the needs of this woman. She has been sending signals that she needs help, and she continues to be ignored, even by her own husband. The oppression comes in the form of pushing onto her the belief that "she is OK."

2. Jane's brother is also a physician who agrees with Jane's husband that there is nothing wrong with her. They both advise that she stops working—that her stimulation is taken away to rest. Still, she senses that there is something very wrong with that. 

Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do?

Again, she feels helpless: "What is one to do?" The oppression from the men in her life comes from demanding that she stops finding succor in work. They are also downplaying her emotions in the process. She is not free to be herself or to apply the treatment that she feels is needed. 

3. John, the husband, seems to want to take away everything that causes any inspiration in Jane. He closed the window of her room when he decided for Jane that something she felt was a draught. As a result, she became angry with him. Still, she doubts her right to be mad. 

I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I'm sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition. But John says if I feel so, I shall neglect proper self-control; so I take pains to control myself—before him, at least, and that makes me very tired.

She is trying too hard to comply with whatever her husband tells her to do. She does not realize that she is neglecting her own needs during a very delicate time and that her condition is truly serious. 

4. John, the husband, is so overbearing that she is starting to confuse his meddling with "caring." He is oppressing her to the point of causing her hide her writing from him. He is driving her crazy. 

There comes John, and I must put this away,—he hates to have me write a word.

5. John's disregard makes her feel unimportant. He refers to his other patients as "serious cases." That is a form of oppression because it shows that he is imposing upon her a false label of "wellness."

John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no REASON to suffer, and that satisfies him.

6. Not only does John disregard his wife, but he also pushes her to snap out of her current state with the threat of sending her to a doctor that deals with cases of nervous breakdowns. She is scared, so she is forced to hide her condition even more.

John says if I don't pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall.

But I don't want to go there at all. I had a friend who was in his hands once, and she says he is just like John and my brother, only more so!

It is no wonder that she starts seeing a woman in the yellow wallpaper of the room, and it is no surprise that she breaks down completely trying to "liberate" the woman.

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Outside of the feminist perspective provided above regarding the oppression in Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper", one could look at the oppression both the environment and mental defect have upon the unnamed protagonist of the story.

First, the room alone oppresses the protagonist. She finds it impossible to become well again (she is suffering from Post-partum depression) in a room as littered with evidence of past horrors. The scratched floor, marks in the bed posts, and (above all else) the wallpaper. The room alone oppresses the protagonist.

Outside of the environment, the post-partum depression oppresses the protagonist. Her inability to pull herself out of this mental deficiency adds to her oppression. No one really helps her overcome the PPD. Instead, she is left to fight against it on her own. The fact that the PPD oppresses her mentally speaks to the fact that she is driven even further into insanity.

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How does "The Yellow Wallpaper" explore oppression?

First you might read Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper." See link. The story explores a very real oppression of women concerning childbearing and what many doctors of the time misunderstood about pregnancy and postpartum depression.  The "rest cure" was a treatment resulting from misunderstanding women, pregnancy, and how to best support new mothers.  Often those with authority such as doctors and men forced these treatments on women despite what women thought of the situation themselves.  For example, the protaganist wants to write. She knows that writing will make her feel better.  But she is forbidden to do anything that might overtax her.  You might also look at this as an opportunity to discuss the oppression of women writers at the time.

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How does "The Yellow Wallpaper" explore oppression?

Oppression is a key theme in "The Yellow Wallpaper." The narrator, having just given birth and in a frail physical state, is isolated by her husband John to let her recover. However, he overdoes it, keeping her alone without any mental stimulation. While she has infrequent visitors, they only serve to exaggerate how alone and isolated she is otherwise. She suffers mood swings, and John misinterprets them as "female hysteria."

And dear John gathered me up in his arms, and just carried me upstairs and laid me on the bed, and sat by me and read to me till it tired my head.

He said I was his darling and his comfort and all he had, and that I must take care of myself for his sake, and keep well.

He says no one but myself can help me out of it, that I must use my will and self-control and not let any silly fancies run away with me.
(Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper," library.csi.cuny.edu)

Her very real fears and mental deterioration are "silly fancies" instead of worthy of attention. Since she only sees people who agree John, she cannot make anyone aware of her state; her descent into madness at the end is a mental escape and rebellion against her captivity. Instead of forcing herself to conform to her husband's notions of mental sanity, she creates a mental place where he can't follow, a place where his rules of captivity and isolation have no meaning. When she is mentally free, she finds herself perfectly suited for her new world, even if she has withdrawn from the old one.

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